Revisiting Harry Potter, two decades later

Illustration by Aleah Green

About five weeks ago, upon perusing the collection of dusty books from my adolescence at my home in California, I stumbled upon an untouched collection: Harry Potter. Only having read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a middle schooler, then quitting, I decided to venture into this magical world, unknown to me.

I initially picked up the series with the intention of using it to escape our current reality for moments at a time and occupying myself with a summer reading project. Since the start of quarantine in March, I had been trying to read daily — a habit that I gave up too young. I figured Harry Potter would do the trick. The series is notoriously long; what better way to guarantee a bookish summer than to dedicate myself to this 4,000-plus page giant?

Little did I know, it was probably the worst time to venture into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The day I opened Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling essentially outed herself as a TERF, or transexclusionary radical feminist. She caught — deserved — flack for mocking the phrase “people who menstruate” in a tweet, followed up with a 3,000-word piece defending her problematic views on “transgenderism.”

I will not get into the nitty-gritty of her words or views, but I will say that I denounce them. I continued reading with a clear conscience: I bought the books used over eight years ago and have never given Rowling a cent of my money. I am of the mind that her creation is larger than her now, beyond her. Some may argue, but I think we are all still allowed to enjoy Harry Potter if we so choose, as long as we are mindful not to further fill Rowling’s pockets. The cast’s support of the transgender community and their criticism of Rowling further validated my support for the story, not the author.

As Daniel Radcliffe wrote in a letter to The Trevor Project following Rowling’s gender manifesto, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you. If you found anything in these stories that resonate with you and helped you at any time in your life, then that is between you and the book that you read, and that is sacred. And in my opinion, nobody can touch that.”

With these words, I continued without Rowling in mind but instead enthralled with the characters and friendships and dynamics within the pages of the story. Admittedly, I am not the target audience of Harry Potter, but I’m hesitant to feel any shame in my newfound love for the books. I felt true joy upon the gang’s victories and shed real tears with each fictional death or failure.

I opened Harry Potter with the intent of escaping but instead was faced with reality and truth. Approaching the series as an adult, I was inclined to read into the social context. The books contain a lot of social commentaries, but I’d argue the first three books carry the worst of it.

Rowling touts her “love for women” and the sanctity of femininity but wrote a book primarily about boys with arguably poorly-developed girls that exist simply to help their male counterparts. I adore the women of Harry Potter because they do get better as the books progress. But for the first half of the series, Hermione existed to do Harry and Ron’s homework and Ginny existed to crush on Harry. If I read this as a young girl, I am sure I would have absorbed that.

When it comes to the bad racial commentary, the books are basically saying everyone is equal and parents should let their children go to school with kids that are different, but any analysis deeper than that exposes some faulty views on Rowling’s part. In the beginning, I was frustrated with the poorly constructed metaphors but kept in mind that any racial commentary from the ’90s is bound to be extensively problematic now. I chose to focus on the story, but as it unfolded and the scope of the tale broadened, I couldn’t look away from its sinister relevance.

The central themes of the story are familiar: good versus bad, light versus dark. There is truth to each Harry Potter villain and hero. Take away the magic, and the story is one of war for inclusion and against the supremacy of evil. The primary morals — love is the most powerful force, only light can push out darkness, et cetera — are true to me. When I stopped looking for relevance, it found me.

From "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" forward, the scope of the tale is broadened; we learn more about the politics of the wizard world and we join our heroes in a fight against tyranny. The more I learned about that world, the more it related to this one. We can draw comparisons between wizard supremacy and the many forms of hate that live around us today, but you can also just indulge in the story. It can be deep or simply about friendship and magic, but that is up to the reader.

The characterization and storytelling of the latter half of the series sort of redeems my frustrations with the first three books. The gang actually grows up — their dynamics change, their personalities gain more depth. The progression of the books made me sad I missed out on this story as a kid. So many children literally grew up alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione as their personalities and humanity developed with each page. I got to experience their story in retrospect, applying their lessons to both my childhood and my present.

After completing "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" this week, I am of two emotions — I feel a little lost as to how to spend my free time now, and I am finally in on a well-known secret after years of ignorance. I truly love Harry Potter and until I revisit it again, whether that’s reading the series to my future children or opening one of my favorites next time I’m extremely bored, I hold the themes and lessons close to my heart.